Vital Signs

The Continuing Revolution

In his critical work about the bicentenaire of the French Revolution, Le Grand Déclassement, French historian Pierre Chaunu explores the first stages of the unraveling of the glorification of France as a revolutionary nation conceived in 1789.  By the time Chaunu’s book was published in 1989, however, the official celebrations had been both scaled back and focused on the least divisive aspects of the early Revolution: the establishment of legal equality and the abolition of certain feudal practices.  Historian François Furet, like Chaunu, has described as well as contributed to this process of reassessment.  According to Furet, what made the French Revolution different from moderate liberal changes then taking place in Anglo-American societies were its least desirable aspects, most particularly mass murder.

As far back as 1790, Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, showed presciently that what the French revolutionaries were offering was not merely a timely reform of French monarchical institutions but an “armed doctrine,” fully reflected in the “Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens,” passed by the French Assembly in August 1789.  The proponents of this document were legislating not only for their own nation but for the entire human race.  Presumably, reasoned Burke, those who spoke for mankind might...

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